Reality TV success. New restaurant. Abused. Stalked. Murdered.
After winning a cooking reality TV competition, Chef Vickie Lopez used that fame to fulfill her dream to open her own restaurant. Shortly after it opens, Chicago Homicide Detective Drexel Pierce finds her hanging in her office. As Drexel digs deeper into her life, the veneer begins to peel away. Trapped in an abusive relationship while rising to near celebrity status, she sought escape with drugs and affairs. Then accusations of plagiarism from a competitive chef surface. Rumors of loans from the mob loom. And a stalker sent her flowers every week. As Drexel sorts through the lies and misdirections to find the killer, which motive led to her killing? Who had the opportunity?
Justice in Slow Motion is the third book in the Drexel Pierce mystery series set in modern Chicago with compelling characters and twists and turns along the way. Fans of Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, and Ross Macdonald will love this addition to the series.
July 1, 2017
The thump, thump, thump of the windshield wipers at full speed sweeping away sheets of rain overpowered the sound of the individual drops plunking against the metal roof of the silver Ford Taurus. Chicago homicide Detective Drexel Pierce, sitting in the driver’s seat, grabbed the back of his neck and twisted his head up and left. He had pulled to a stop in a small space between two patrol cars, their tires touching the sidewalk. Another patrol car reversed into the gap Drexel had driven through to block the eastbound driving lane. An officer dressed in a large poncho waved an orange safety flashlight at the cars heading west, while another held the traffic heading east at a stop.
The storm had arrived in the early hours of the morning, arriving from the southeast where it had thrashed Kansas City. As if timed by fate, the call of yet another corpse had come into Homicide at the start of the heaviest part of the storm.
Detective Naresh Mehta had received the call, but he had been at the end of his shift and wanted only to battle the elements to get home. Drexel had ensured he had Naresh’s two tickets to the July fourth Cubs game before taking over his slot in the rotation. Staring out the windshield at the six-story, red-brick building north of the Loop and west of the Miracle Mile, he hoped the game between the best-record in the league Cubs against the American League Tampa Bay Rays would be worth it. He pulled on his light-brown flat cap, draped his messenger bag over his shoulder, ensured it was closed, and breathed in as if he were getting ready to jump into a pool. He opened the door, stepped out and closed the door in one smooth motion, and ran to the sidewalk. He stepped in a deep puddle just in the gutter, soaking his shoe and sock, but he did not stop. He kept running to the overhang above the entrance to 359 West Ohio Street.
A patrol officer stood at the door. He wore a poncho, though the hood was down. He smiled. “Detective?”
Drexel nodded and brushed water off his brown sports coat’s shoulders. He reached into the inside pocket and pulled out his badge, holding it up for the officer to see.
As the officer nodded and wrote down Drexel’s name, badge number, and arrival time, Drexel unwound the ball chain wrapped around the badge and threw it over his head, letting the badge hang over his chest. The officer said, “Gear’s just on the other side. Crime scene unit is still working.”
Drexel bit the inside of his lip, nodded, and placed his hand against the building. The shoestrings on his left, brown Derby were wet and difficult to untie. When they came loose, he pulled off the shoe and dumped water out onto the sidewalk. He slipped the shoe back on and pulled open the heavy wood door leading into a restaurant. A plastic tub of booties, masks, purple nitrile gloves, and baby blue disposable coveralls was open, the lid sitting behind it against the wall. He donned the gear. He left his messenger bag next to it, though not before taking out a brand new notebook and pen. He opened to the first page and tested the black-ink pen by drawing a series of squiggles across the top. Satisfied, he opened the second set of wood doors that opened to the restaurant proper. As the doors closed behind him, the sound of the rain fell away to the sounds of crime scene techs moving about with their equipment and the shuffling sound of the coveralls.
The hostess stand was a black painted lectern with a small flexible light attached the side. A laminated diagram of the tables, presumably cleaned at the end of last night’s service, sat on the top. A large plant, one could even say shrub, in a black pot hugged the space between the lectern and the wall. Drexel stepped into the dining room. Twelve-foot ceilings. White painted walls with wainscoting of pounded tin. The tables, chairs, and booths were solid black. Small gray lamps sat on the tables. Two-, four-, and six-top tables filled the middle and the windows facing the streets. Booths were lined up against the far wall. A bar, also solid black, with glasses hanging from above, bottles of liquor organized by type (vodkas, gins, bourbons, scotches, and liqueurs) filled the middle area near the kitchen entrance on one side and restrooms on the other. He stepped back to the lectern, looked at the back of it, and found a stack of menus. He pulled the top one out.
The menu was a thick piece of paper, unprotected, three inches wide and eleven inches long. At the top, below the restaurant’s name, Fling, in a script font, was yesterday’s date. The menu featured starters, mains, sides, and desserts. Each item—Drexel assumed the main ingredient in the dish—was listed in bold and a slash separated the additional ingredients. The starters were:
beef tartare / horseradish-dijon foam
deviled eggs / chipotle and cilantro / tortilla crisp
olives / pickled garlic and onion
french onion soup / garlic-gruyere puff pastry
cauliflower soup / pesto cream / fresh basil
He scanned down the items, soaking in the prices, before placing the menu back. He estimated a person could drop two to three hundred dollars for their meal alone, without drinks. Too rich for him. He slipped the menu into the back of the notebook.
As he walked into the dining room, he saw one of the crime scene techs enter through the double-swinging doors leading to the kitchen. “The body back there?” With the coverall’s hood up and the mask on, Drexel could not recognize the person. They all looked like they came out of a pandemic horror movie.
The tech at the door stopped. He nodded. The two techs working the dining room paused and looked up. When they saw who Drexel was addressing, they returned to their work. Slightly muffled through the mask, the tech at the door said, “Go to the back. Take the stairs to the second floor. Office on the right.” He then continued on toward the main entrance.
Drexel walked across the floor, pushed on the double doors, and entered the kitchen. Pots and pans hung from racks. Stainless steel tables and sinks shined with mirror cleanliness. He walked the narrow path between them and took the stairs up. On the right, the wood door was closed. On the left, a similar door was ajar and he could see a crime scene tech standing and looking up. He entered the room and saw why.
The body of a woman dressed in dark pants and a white chef’s jacket hung from an exposed pipe by something white and thick. Her feet, one black flat on, another with a black sock and the shoe on the floor, were three feet above the floor. Her head tilted to the right, her face was swollen and blue, and her tongue bulged out at the lips. A rolling desk chair lay on its side a few feet from the body. He stopped and looked up at her and then in the office.
A second tech stood by a small, simple desk near the far wall. An in/out box full of envelopes and papers, a pen caddy, and a desk lamp sat on the desk. He presumed the chair on its side had been behind the desk. A laptop computer, its lid open, was situated in the middle of the desk where someone would likely be working on it. A printer sat on a set of two filing cabinets to the right. A single, beat up lounge chair occupied space to the left of the desk. The floor was hardwood—from the looks of it—several decades old.
He opened his notebook and began drawing a sketch of the office. One of the crime scene techs had probably already started one, but over the years, Drexel found he liked doing it himself, as well. The activity helped him begin to process the scene. He spent a few minutes getting the rough drawing done. He left spaces to record distances. He closed the notebook and looked at the first tech he saw, who was still looking at the body. “What’ve we got?”
“Trying to figure out how to get her down.”
“You need a step ladder.”
“Yeah, Jerry went down to get one.” The tech looked out the door. “He’s been gone awhile.”
The tech across the room said, “Just us in here for now.”
“I think I passed him on my way up. What about the rest?” Drexel pointed around the room.
The first tech said, “We’re waiting for you and the ME to deal with the body.” The ME was the medical examiner—the only person who could officially pronounce the all-to-obviously dead person hanging before them as dead. “Then we’ll start dusting the door and pipe for fingerprints if you think it’s necessary.”
Drexel walked to stand beside the body, his face at the height of her thighs. “Why wouldn’t it be? Drexel, by the way.”
“Hey, yeah. I’m Sam and that’s Ben.”
Ben, across the room, waved.
Drexel looked at the floor and then knelt into a catcher’s stance. “So why wouldn’t it be necessary?” He looked at the shoe laying on the floor. Black. Canvas. The white tag on the outside read BOBS. The canvas at the toe was folded over, forming two seams. They looked comfortable.
“Well. I mean.” He gestured to the body. “Looks like she killed herself.”
“Right. Regardless, once we’ve got the body down and the medical examiner has taken her, let’s still dust.” Drexel looked over at Ben. “What’ve you found?”
Ben waved the detective over. “Not much really. No note.” He gestured to the computer. “The computer was asleep but not off.” The screen was dark. Ben tapped the mousepad and the screen woke up with an Enter Password window. “The computer guys will need to deal with this. Standard PC. Nothing special about it.” Ben opened the top drawer in the middle. A checkbook, a few pens, an eraser, and some paper clips. The two other drawers, on the right side when a person sat at the desk, were locked.
“Best wait to see if we can find some keys,” said Drexel. “Go ahead and start dusting for fingerprints on the top of the desk and the drawers. Bag the computer and cord for now. Any ID?”
Ben snapped his head up from looking at the desk. “You don’t know?”
“He doesn’t know,” said Sam.
Drexel looked back and forth at them both. “Well, is someone going to tell me?”
Ben said, “That’s Vickie Lopez. She won America’s Next Great Chef last season. This is the restaurant she opened with her winnings.”
The detective shrugged. “Don’t watch that show.” He did not watch much TV outside of Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls, and Bears games. “Is it a big deal?”
Ben chuckled. “Well, it is if you’re into food. They’re talking she’s going to get a couple of Michelin stars, maybe three.”
“Not sure what that means.”
Ben shook his head and waved his hand. “If that don’t get you, then I can’t explain it.”
Drexel wrote “Michelin stars” in his notebook.
“Hey,” said the man Drexel identified as Jerry. He carried a step ladder, dripping with rainwater, by having his arm through the top rung. He smelled of cigarette smoke. “The ME is right behind me.”
Drexel waved Jerry in and walked to the doorway. “Good morning doctor.”
Dr. Noelle Lindsey, the medical examiner, stopped at the top step. “Morning detective. It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” She wore one of the coveralls, and she had the hood up and over her head, though the dark brown curls he knew were trapped there still fought and pushed the hood out. “Hear we got a hanger.”
He nodded and gestured for her to enter the room.
She looked up at the body and then down at the floor. She nodded and looked back at Drexel. “Have you examined what you need yet?”
“If it’s alright with you, I’d like to look with the step ladder first and then ensure we can set her down without disturbing the scene.”
Jerry had set up the step ladder beside the victim at her back. Drexel went up two rungs and looked at Vickie Lopez. Her long, dark hair fell below her shoulders. It had some coloring to it in swatches of light brown. Her hair fell over the back of the noose, which was a white cloth of some sort. He stepped down and moved the step ladder to her right side. And then to the front and then to the left side. He ignored the horror in her face. Her eyes were open, bulging. Strands of hair fell alongside her nose. From when he entered, he could tell that rigor mortis had set in. He scrunched his lips and stepped down. “Have we photographed the chair?” he asked, pointing to the overturned rolling chair.
“We have,” said Sam.
Drexel pulled out his iPhone and snapped a photo anyway. He bent down beside it and grabbed the plastic connecting piece between the back and the seat and sat it upright. After examining the height of the seat and Vickie’s feet, he shook his head. Pushing on that same plastic piece, he pushed the chair under her feet. The seat had a clearance of two to three inches, by his guess. And the victim’s feet were dangling down. So even if she was on her tiptoes, she could not have stood on the chair. He borrowed Ben’s tape measure, a soft, rubber-banded white one, and Ben himself to take photos. Drexel pressed the gold-colored metal end to the floor and raised the measure to the top of the seat cushion. Twenty-one inches. Vickie’s toes were another three inches higher.
He bent down by the chair. The seat height adjuster was immediately below the cushion. He pressed the adjuster and then pressed on the cushion. The seat dropped. When Drexel lifted his weight off the cushion, the seat rose, and he let it go the entire way. Twenty-one inches. He rolled the chair away. “Ben, start dusting this chair. Focus on the adjuster’s, the armrests. Stuff that people would touch.” He looked up at Vickie and then over at Noelle. “Okay, she’s all yours.”
Noelle nodded and climbed the steps of the ladder. She asked for a second step ladder. Once in place, she worked with one of her team to photograph the noose knotted around the pipe. Two techs held the victim’s feet, which they then lifted to ease the pressure on the knot around the pipe. Noelle undid the knot and with the aid of another tech, lowered the body down onto a plastic bag.
Drexel looked at the noose, which was made up of two rolled up aprons. He could make out the Fling logo. Someone had laid them on top of each other in opposite directions so that the bottom, widest part of one was laid over the top of the upper, thinner part of the other. Then the perp, for Drexel was certain a killer was involved, had rolled them tightly together, and tied it around her neck. Before or after strangling her he did not yet know. The knot was not a traditional noose knot. A couple of simple cross-overs pulled tight. Another indication, not that he needed it, she did not commit suicide.
Drexel stood up and nodded his head. He said, “Okay. You can take her.”
The medical examiner’s team placed Vickie into a body bag and zipped it closed. They placed her on a stretcher and carried her out and down into the pouring rain.